Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Concerns with McGraw Hill's "Reading Wonders" Curriculum

Do you remember the books you used in elementary school? The ones you used for Reading? Maybe your kids are in elementary school and their Reading books are in your home, right now. I certainly remember mine!

During November, I began to hear about the McGraw Hill "Reading Wonders" series. Or rather, I began to hear about four books in that series that people in Juneau had concerns about. The four are supplemental materials in the Reading Wonders series for 4th graders. In response to concerns, the district asked Paul Berg, a cross-cultural specialist to analyze the books. He found problems in them, as indicated in his report: Assessment of Reading Wonders Publications. The book about the Trail of Tears was evaluated by education specialists, Gloria Sly and Joseph Erb, with the Cherokee Nation. In their analysis, they stated that none of the historical information is correct.

There were meetings at the school about the books, the outcome of which is that the superintendent has set the four books aside and written to McGraw Hill about them. The four books are:

  • The Visit, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Joanne Renaud. Historical fiction. Parents visit their daughter in a boarding school.
  • Continuing On, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Dan Bridy. Historical fiction. Young Cherokee boy recounts the Trail of Tears.
  • Our Teacher the Hero, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Historical fiction. Biography of Sarah Winnemucca, Paiute woman who founded a school.
  • History Detectives, written by Sandy McKay. Nonfiction. Students learn about the work of archaeologists at digs of Native sites. 

I've read the analysis Mr. Berg did, and, having read the books, concur with his findings.

No doubt that McGraw Hill meant well. No doubt, Terry Miller Shannon did some research and meant to provide children with information they may not otherwise have seen. To an outsider to Native culture or to someone who doesn't study it for a living (example would be a non-Native professor in American Indian Studies), the information that Shannon provides seems good. But to a Native person for whom the content of the stories is part of family life, past and present? The books rub salt in wounds that are still raw.

In their January 2010 report for the UCLA Civil Rights Project, Education professors Faircloth and Tippeconnic studied data from the National Center for Education Statistics and called the drop out rates of Native students a crisis. This, they wrote, is not new. Native students didn't do well in the 20th century either. Here's a chilling line from their report (p. 27):
As Reyhner and others (e.g. Rumberger, 2004; Brandt, 1992) have argued, the process of dropping out or being pushed out of school is a cumulative process often precipitated by academic and personal difficulties causing students to detach from school."
Pushed out. Detached from school. Those thoughts stand out for me as I think about the McGraw Hill books. These four books are supposed to be used in the 4th grade classroom. That's one year out of a 12 year education. I wonder what is in the books for children in the grades K-3?

Most people like reading something set in their home town, or that is in some way, about them, personally or culturally. If it is well done, it feels good! Makes you smile and want to share it with others. But! If it isn't done right, it is infuriating. Some will write to the publisher or author. Some people will set that material aside and move on.

For the non-Native kids across the country who are being assigned these books, they're getting biased and incorrect information. You and I might argue about bias but I think we'd agree: incorrect information is not good. Period. In a school, there is no room for incorrect information.

Let's think now about the Native kids across the country who are reading those books and asked to respond to the questions in them. In The Visit, one question students must answer is this:
What does chatter on page 13 mean? What other word could the author use instead of chatter
A Native kid who has heard stories from his parents or grandparents who went to boarding school is likely going to be working pretty hard to set aside the whitewashing in the story so that he/she can focus on the word chatter. The "paired text" for The Visit is several pages of expository text about boarding schools. Here's a line from there:
During the 1800s, the government wanted Native Americans to learn the ways of white people.
A more accurate way to say that is this:
In the 1800s, the government wanted Native Americans to stop being Indians and be like White people. 
An even more accurate way to say it is this:
In the 1800s, the government established an educational policy for Native Americans designed around an intent to "Kill the Indian and save the man."
See the difference? All three are accurate but what they convey is different. Later, the expository text reads (p. 18):
Girls learned how to cook, sew, and do laundry.
Are McGraw-Hill and Ms. Shannon telling us that Native girls didn't know how cook, sew, and do laundry?! Think about that for a moment... Does it fit with your ideas that Indians were primitive people who lived primitive lifestyles? If so, it isn't true! You were miseducated, and kids who are reading this text are learning the same thing you did.

All four of those books cast Native people in a past tense framework. As such, the four echo and confirm misconceptions that we are not part of the present day. McGraw Hill would be taking a huge step in the right direction by including realistic fiction that shows us in the here-and-now.

Is your district using the McGraw Hill series? Should it be using these four books?

The superintendent for Juneau School District indicated that new materials will be developed to replace these. I'd love to see them. I hope they are sent to McGraw Hill, too, and that McGraw Hill steps away from well-meaning writers and turns to those with expertise on the subject. We'd all be better off.

The McGraw Hill response (quoted in Alaska Dispatch News), however, to the superintendent doesn't make me optimistic. Brian Belardi, director of media relations said that McGraw Hill is:
"respectful of the feelings of the Native communities and mindful of sensitive issues raised in these books. We are confident they are appropriate at a fourth-grade level as starting points for discussion around the experience of Native Americans."
Mr. Belardi? You are wrong. The books are not good starting points. The Native community said as much. The superintendent said so, too. You really don't sound "respectful" at all.

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A sampling of news stories on the meetings:
November 2, 2014: Emotions high over school curriculum, Juneau Empire.
November 11, 2014: Questioned books came as a surprise, Juneau Empire.
November 26, 2014: Decision due soon on 'distorted' school texts depicting Native tragedies, Alaska Public Media.
December 4, 2014: Juneau superintendent removes 4 Native history books from 4th-grade curriculum, Alaska Dispatch News (Note: the books are historical fiction, not history books.)

2 comments:

andrea said...

I agree, McGraw Hill's response is woefully inadequate.

Truth Unleashed said...

Actually, the bit about girls learning to "cook, sew, and do laundry" doesn't make sense even from the perspective of the assumption that Indians were primitive. Food and clothing are pretty basic necessities. Humans have been cooking since ancient man learned how to use fire, and making garments for themselves almost as long as that. If anything, people from the cultures we may tend to think of as "primitive" are more likely to know how to cook and sew than people who live in societies marked by cutting-edge technological sophistication and a highly specialized division of labor. Shannon's statement isn't merely insulting in its implications, it verges on out-and-out nonsense.